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Returnees face tough times in Bosnia

Around half of the workforce in Bosnia is unemployed swissinfo.ch

Aid officials and ex-refugees warn that rejected asylum seekers may face poverty, unemployment and a lack of security on their return to the former Yugoslavia.

This content was published on November 1, 2004 - 08:27

Their comments come as at least 150 people from Bosnia and Herzegovina, who are currently living in canton Vaud, wait to hear if they are to be sent home.

The asylum seekers form part of a group of more than 500 people in the canton – including around 200 from Serbia and Montenegro – whose residency applications were rejected by the federal authorities earlier this year (see related stories).

But returnees say that, despite the war having ended ten years ago, the region still faces many problems, especially in the rural areas.

Lokvancic Haris, a Bosnian-Muslim, who fled from the besieged city of Sarajevo to Switzerland in 1993, says that the Srebrenica region, in particular, is still very poor.

“Nothing is functioning, the roads are still destroyed, it is difficult for children to go to school and they will face security issues, even if the authorities say otherwise,” he told swissinfo.

Haris, who lived with his family in the Swiss city of Lausanne until 1998, has since returned to Sarajevo, where he works as a nurse and is finishing his medical studies.

Despite his success in reintegrating into Bosnian society, he is adamant that the Vaud asylum seekers should be allowed to stay in Switzerland.

Problems

“The big issue for everyone is to find a job,” said Haris.

“Coming back from a place like Switzerland, which is one of the richest countries in the world, to a place under reconstruction, with enormous social, economic and political problems, would be very difficult... it’s not easy to adapt after years away,” he explained.

According to the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), about 19 per cent of the population in Bosnia and Herzegovina lives below the poverty line and almost half the workforce is unemployed.

At least 60 per cent of families also depend heavily on support from relatives abroad or income from the black market.

Among the most affected segments of society are minority returnees, internally displaced persons and pensioners.

Swiss assistance

In cooperation with the International Organisation for Migration, the SDC and the Federal Refugee Office have pledged to facilitate the return of Vaud’s rejected asylum seekers “under the best possible conditions”.

René Holenstein, the head of the SDC’s regional office in Sarajevo, says that Swiss assistance is expected to include a monitoring programme targeted at vulnerable groups and women.

“We are working to ensure that returning asylum seekers don’t fall through the holes in the social net,” Holenstein told swissinfo.

However, he admits that depending on the region, today’s rejected asylum seekers “may still face some of the problems encountered by returnees in the late 1990s.”

He cites a lack of housing, security concerns, the country’s poor economic situation as well as limited access to services – ranging from education to electricity – as some of the challenges still facing residents across the country.

Post-conflict

Holenstein says that the SDC continues to treat Bosnia-Herzegovina as a priority country because of the lingering post-conflict problems the government is struggling to deal with.

Werner Kaspar, the Swiss head of the International Committee of the Red Cross’s Sarajevo delegation, says this assessment matches what he hears from many of his field workers.

“A lot of people in this country, everywhere, struggle daily with a very difficult environment,” said Kaspar.

“Economically speaking, there are a lot of problems to be solved and it is not easy for them to find solutions,” he added.

But both Holenstein and Kaspar are quick to point out that significant progress has been made in recent years in rebuilding both the state and society, as well as the country’s shattered economy.

“Bosnia and Herzegovina has an image problem,” said Holenstein. “I generally believe that the external view of the country is much worse than the situation inside the country.”

“Ethnic tensions that flared during the war have cooled down and people are once again working closely together,” he added.

“The social fabric is being rehabilitated but it needs a lot of time.”

Hope

This is a point of view shared by many returnees, including Haris.

“If my family and I had not been forced to leave Switzerland, we would certainly would have stayed there,” Haris told swissinfo.

“But do I regret having come back to Sarajevo? Well, it simply had to be like that and we had to continue to create a normal life,” he added.

“And I definitely have hope that things will change and that the general situation will improve… but in my opinion, realistically, it’s going to take another ten or 12 years.”

swissinfo, Anna Nelson in Sarajevo

Key facts

From 1992 to 1995, Bosnia and Herzegovina was the scene of an interethnic war between Bosnian-Muslims, Croats and Serbs in which an estimated 250,000 people died.
Around two million people were displaced by the conflict, including over 10,000 refugees who fled to Switzerland.
The southeast European country is a Swiss foreign policy priority, due to its post-war problems.

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In brief

At least 150 rejected asylum seekers living in canton Vaud may soon be forced to return to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

If sent back home, they could face unemployment, poverty and security concerns, say experts.

The interethnic war ended almost ten years ago but the country is still struggling to recover due to unemployment, corruption and a stagnant economy.

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